Gurinder Chadha: In the West, it is difficult to get finance if you put a person of colour in your film
Gurinder Chadha launched her career internationally with British comedy Bend it Like Beckham, which was about a teenage Punjabi girl who dreams of being a football player. Much before that, about a decade earlier, in 1993, she wrote and directed a comedy about a busload of British-Indian women going on a day trip to the seaside (Bhaji on the Beach). She then moved on to a Bollywood take on a Jane Austen comedy (Bride and Prejudice, 2004) with Aishwarya Rai in the lead. After that, came a black comedy about a British-Indian mother murdering her daughter’s useless boyfriends with poisoned curries (It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, 2010). And now, with her upcoming British-Indian historical, period drama, Partition:1947, alternatively titled, Viceroy House, she has done a complete turnaround. The film is a personal, serious story that she has wanted to tell for the better part of a decade.
“All my films tackle serious issues but I often dress them up in comedies. Even Partition:1947 has bit of humour in couple of places but there is irony and not comedy,” laughs the filmmaker, who is currently in India for the film’s promotions. “My first film Bhaji... was on domestic violence and Bend It... was on racism, but now I wanted to make a big, sumptuous looking period film. Partition is very close to my heart and through a personal story, you get the emotion. My family suffered first-hand. I personally don’t have a homeland. London is my home but my ancestral home is Jhelum and Rawalpindi. My ancestors have been there for thousands of years but I can’t get a visa to go there. These issues have affected me very deeply and so the film was a response to that,” says Gurinder.
The 57-year-old filmmaker adds, “It was a challenging subject because what I realised during the research is that the history that I had been taught about why Partition happened, was totally a lie... a complete lie. It is usually claimed that Partition happened as a reaction to two communities fighting with each other, but according to my research, it was a political act. It was done for (a) vested interest.”
What makes the film interesting is that Gurinder got access to top secret documents in the British library, thanks to the advice given by Prince Charles who she met during a reception at St James’ Palace when she was in the midst of researching Partition:1947. “I told Prince Charles that I was making a film about his uncle and he immediately asked me about my research. I told him that it was Freedom at Midnight, which is known as a seminal film. But he suggested that I look at other texts and the work of the Indian diplomat Narendra Singh Sarila who was at the Paris high commission for 20 years. Sarila, who was royalty himself, was in the British library in 1997 writing a book on the maharajas of India and what happened to them in 1947. And he was given some top-secret declassified documents (that were coming back into the public domain) by one Indian librarian, Mrs Ghosh, who was watching him in the library every day. Sarila ditched the book he was writing and instead wrote The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India's Partition, on which our film is based. I have also visited the library and looked at the documents. It is a very compelling case and proof of why the British wanted to partition India,” says Gurinder.
The release of Partition:1947 is timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Partition, and Gurinder feels that with the growth of divisiveness around the world her film becomes more relevant and modern in present times. “When I started the movie there was no Syrian refugee crisis. Barack Obama was the US President and there was no Brexit. When we were cutting the film, Brexit happened, then in America we had Trump wanting to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out. We were certainly affected because we had this divisiveness around the world, and it makes the film modern even as it is set 70 years ago. It has great resonance for today. It shows how easily and quickly things can turn into trouble if people want to push those divisions.”
Her hope is that the film will help people who are still affected by the legacy of Partition and ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan. However, considering the politically sensitive relationship between the two countries, Gurinder was careful not to portray any one side — the Hindus, Muslims or the British — as villains in the movie. “The vision was to make a film I could watch in Lahore, London and Delhi. You can’t tell who’s Muslim or Hindu. I have worked very hard to make it very balanced. Also, I can straddle both cultures, I can see everything from both, a British and an Indian perspective. I didn’t show violence specifically against one group or another. I wanted to make a film where you ask at the end, 'What was the point of the violence?' It didn’t matter who was the victim of it, who perpetrated it — everyone was the victim.”
The film stars Hugh Bonneville (Lord Mountbatten), Gillian Anderson (Lady Mountbatten), Neeraj Kabi (Mahatma Gandhi), Denzil Smith (Muhammad Ali Jinnah), Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, Michael Gambon and the late Om Puri, and the director says that it was very important for the actors to not just resemble the leaders but also have their research right. “Denzil had played Jinnah before so he had studied him. Then, Neeraj had played Gandhi before so he knew all the little nuances. Huma had sent in a tape and she was brilliant. She has this period look and she is also quite feisty and intelligent,” says Gurinder.
Partition:1947 is Gurinder’s first feature film in seven years. Even after the success of Bend It, globally, it seems that financing stories about minorities remains a challenge for her. “In the West, it is always difficult to get finance if you put a person of colour in your film. There is still this perception that whites won’t watch it if there is an Indian in the lead even as I have proved (otherwise) again and again globally. The issue has existed since I made Bhaji on the Beach,” says Gurinder, who was the first Asian woman to make a feature film in Britain. And 25 years later, she's probably still the only one. “I have got to work harder, but I’m prepared to do it,” she signs off.